Robert Schumann: Abegg Variations, Op. 1
Schumann’s Abegg Variations first appeared in November of 1831, but Schumann had completed it more than a year earlier, shortly after his twentieth birthday and before he had made the commitment to a life of music (he was still studying law in Heidelberg at the time). It is no fumbling attempt, but rather an assured, individual work from a composer who already knows piano technique intimately.
“Abegg” was the surname of a young lady, Meta Abegg, Schumann had met at a ball in Mannheim. He dedicated his Op. 1 to “Pauline, Countess of Abegg,” though both “Pauline” and “Countess” were fictitious. Nor did Schumann have any amorous intent, as Meta was already in love with someone else. The French appellation was in deference to Paris as the center of pianistic virtuosity at the time, and the theme-and-variations form was the most popular formula for demonstrating this virtuosity. Themes were usually drawn from popular operatic numbers of the day (Rossini, Bellini, Auber, etc.), but Schumann broke with convention and invented his own. Actually, it is more of a fragment than a theme, which, in fact, spell the name ABEGG.
The work consists of an introduction, in which the five-note motif is spun out both forwards and backwards over four variations, including a quiet, reflective Cantabile, and a Finale alla fantasia. Biographer Eric Jensen notes that “it is clear that Schumann intended the work to be comparatively conventional, entertaining, and pleasing – goals that, as time passed, increasingly he abandoned.” However, the music is anything but easy to play, and cannot have been intended for amateurs to fool around with at home.
Schumann: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13
To Schumann, the piano was the instrument through which he confided his most intimate thoughts, and was his most personal medium of artistic expression, so it comes as no surprise to learn that the Symphonic Etudes are intimately connected to the composer’s personal life.
Out of his romantically fertile imagination, Schumann created a gallery of fictional characters known as the Davidsbund (band of David), two of whom are opposing facets of Schumann’s alter ego: Florestan, representing his extroverted, exuberant side; Eusebius his quiet, meditative side. Davidsbund were the proud musical pioneers who went forth to do battle (with pens and notes, not swords and slingshots) against philistines and ultra-conservative composers of the day. Florestan and Eusebius are deeply bound up in the world of the Symphonic Etudes. Among the titles Schumann tried out before settling on the present one are Etuden im Orchestercharakter von Florestan und Eusebius and Davidsbündler Etudes.
The opening gesture, a full-fledged theme, forms an integral part of the composition and serves as the basis of a series of variations. The number of variations, the title of the set and their ordering went through numerous changes in the course of the nineteenth century, extending to well after the composer’s death. In the form most commonly encountered today, the Études symphoniques (Schumann used the French title for the first published edition of 1837), there are twelve numbers following presentation of the dirge-like theme in C sharp minor. Originally Schumann wrote six more as well, but withdrew them, mostly due to difficulties in arranging a proper sequence of so many variations in the same key and for the most part of similar character. Five of these “extra” variations were salvaged by Brahms and published as a supplement in 1873.
Most of the Etudes (or studies) are also variations, although very freely fashioned out of the original theme. The “symphonic” aspect of this music refers to the organic growth and extensive working out of the theme as well as to the orchestral textures, colors, sonorities and effects suggested or realized.
Frédéric Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28
Aside from Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, Chopin’s Preludes (1838) are surely the most famous group of pieces conceived as an orderly traversal of the 24 major and minor keys. (There also exists a solitary additional Prelude, Op. 45.) Other composers have also essayed the procedure, including Alkan, Bentzon, Busoni, Hummel, Kabalevsky, Kalkbrenner, Scriabin and Shostakovich. But those of Bach and Chopin remain by far the best known.
The Bach connection is borne out in biographer James Huneker’s remark that Chopin was “one of the most daring harmonists since Bach.” Franz Liszt, always one to recognize the bold innovations of genius, praised the Preludes: “This composition is of a kind by itself … poetic preludes, analogous to those of a contemporary poet [Lamartine], which soothe the soul with golden dreams and raise it to ideal regions. Admirable in their diversity, they reveal a labor and knowledge that can be appreciated only by careful study. Everything is full of spontaneity, élan, bounce. They have the free and great features that characterize the works of genius.”
Some people are perplexed by the title “prelude” in view of the fact that nothing follows. Reinhard Schulz’s cogent explanation should clarify the point: “The purpose of a prelude has always been to establish the mood of something which is to follow, anticipating its basic characteristics. Each of Chopin’s Preludes may be understood as containing the essence of an entire world of feelings – it is left to the receptive listener to fill in the detailed picture in his mind.”
The Preludes are arranged in pairs of major and minor keys and ascend in intervals of the fifth. Hence: C major, A minor (no sharps or flats); G major, E minor (1 sharp); D major, B minor (2 sharps), etc., through six sharps, then 6 flats, 5 flats, and so on down to 1 flat. Each of these 24 cameos, these “moods in miniature,” inhabits a private world of its own, from the feverish energy of the first to the noble pathos of the final piece. As Robert Schumann said of them, “may each person search for what suits him; may only Philistines stay away!”
Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.